Vienna, October 24 – After the CIS summit in Bishkek, the five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia announced that they had reached agreement on a water-sharing agreement, an accord that will address one of the most neuralgic problems in that region since the end of the Soviet Union and one that many have invested great hopes in as a result.
But as details of this accord have surfaced, it is increasingly clear that this accord, while it would bring real benefits to all five states, could easily break down because of the complexity of the arrangements involved and because if any one country refuses to meet its commitments, the entire arrangement could collapse (www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=7060).
And because of the rapid growth of the populations in these countries and the continuing impact of cotton monoculture in some of them, the social, economic and political consequences of such a breakdown in the first agreement on water sharing in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union could be enormous.
In drawing the borders of the republics in Central Asia in the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin arranged the situation so that two of the republics – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – had water surpluses and the three others – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – were water short and thus dependent on the other.
That gave Moscow not only under Stalin but also under his successors the whip hand in managing relations among these countries, but with the collapse of the USSR, that system broke down and as a result the increasing shortages of water in some places – the result of rapid population growth and cotton monoculture – has exacerbated relations among these states.
The gap between those countries with water surpluses and those with water shortages is only one of several divides. A second division that has made the achievement of any accord so difficult is between those countries – Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – who view water as a free good that should be available to all and the other three who see it as a commodity.
And a third division involves differences over what the price of water should be, what those countries with water surpluses should receive in exchange, and what commitments the surplus countries should make to those with water shortages about when water will flow and in what amounts.
In the last year, both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have accepted the view of the others that water is a commodity and hence something that has a price, but until the Bishkek meeting earlier this summer, the five countries could not agree on the third set of issues largely because water issues in this region are so tightly bound up with energy ones.
On the one hand, the water surplus countries have an interest in retaining water behind hydroelectric dams in order to generate power unless those downstream are prepared to compensate them for the power production they forgo by opening the sluices in the dams and allowing the water to flow.
Dushen Mamtkanov, the director of Kyrgyzstan’s Institute of Water Problems, has pointed out that his country can produce 2.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in the winter but only if it retains enough water behind the dams to drive the turbines. If it allows the water to flow downstream, it needs to be compensated for the power production it has forgone.
Figuring out how to balance water and energy and how to compensate those who provide water with energy is why “arguments about the water problem [in Central Asia] continued without particular success for more than 15 years” and why these debates undercut efforts by Kazakhstan leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to form a Union of Countries in that region.
So intractable did these problems appear that many were completely surprised when Tashkent reported that the five countries had agreed on “the coordinated use of water-energy resources in the upcoming winter and growing seasons.”
Under its terms, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan promised to supply Kyrgyzstan with energy sources of various kinds, Turkmenistan promised to send electricity to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan committed itself to be the transit corridor for electricity. At the same time, it required Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to send water downstream in specific volumes.
All this became possible because of a shift in the position of Uzbekistan, according to the Politcom.ru analyst, and he pointed to Moscow’s willingness to help Kyrgyzstan develop its energy sector independently as one of the reasons that Tashkent was prepared to soften its negotiating position.
But the complexity of the accord is only one of the reasons why it may not work out as planned, and it is far too early to suggest that the water problems of Central Asia have been solved. According to Uzbek political scientist Tashpulat Yuldashev, these countries do not trust each other.
Moreover, Yuldashev told Politcom.ru, “it is generally well-known that Uzbekistan can sign one or another agreement and later refuse to fulfill the obligations it has assumed.” And consequently, each of the five countries will be watching to see whether one of the others is not living up to its promises and thus is providing it with a reason to back out as well.